Staking out your own virtual acreage on the Internet captivates the imagination. The possibility of reaching an audience of countless millions from New York to Tokyo is tantalizing, not to mention potentially lucrative. As the founder of GradSchoolHeaven.com and MBAHeaven.com, online resources for individuals applying to graduate and business school, I offer this 10-step roadmap on starting an online business.
1. Pick a Niche Market
Identify a need and satisfy it by drawing on your passion, skills, expertise and professional networks. I elected to focus on graduate school admissions based on my interest in the topic and first-hand experience applying and being accepted to top academic programs.
2. Choose an Angle
It’s not sufficient to pick a market. You’ll need an angle, or an approach, that differentiates your business or undercuts the competition’s prices. After surveying the competitive landscape, I saw an opportunity to offer jargon-free advice in a professional but whimsical format.
3. Formalize the Business Model
Take a piece of paper and sketch out the various revenue streams and expenses. Look beyond product sales to advertising (clicks) and affiliate revenue. Consider all costs including product fulfillment, web hosting, advertising and the opportunity cost of your time. From the get-go, I signed up both web sites to Google AdSense and Amazon Associates.
4. Develop a Memorable Brand
Devise an appropriate domain name, logo, slogan, and — if you’re so inclined — a mascot to represent your online business. I designed my logo in Adobe Photoshop and commissioned a freelance graphic designer to render a student-angel (hence “Heaven”). After some brainstorming, I came up with the tag line: “Clear, complete, and expert advice.”
5. Design a Smashing Web Site
A fresh and user-friendly interface pays big dividends in the online world. There are templates galore to choose from or you can design your own web site from scratch. I opted for the latter and designed my web site with Adobe Dreamweaver to achieve a customized look.
6. Create Compelling Content
Haven’t you heard? Content is king! Ensure that your web site contains original material that addresses the need in question, whether it’s describing the benefits of your products or sharing useful information. I spent the better part of a month burrowed in my office authoring more than 50 pages of original content.
7. Implement a Payment Solution
If you’re selling a product or service, you’ll need to develop or acquire a third-party payment solution. Choices abound that allow users to pay by popular methods such as PayPal and credit cards. I opted for a third-party service called Cashie that charges a modest one percent commission on all sales.
8. Provide After-sales Support
In cyberspace, visitors need to be reassured more than ever that your business is legitimate. Indicate a telephone, email or, better yet, invest in online chat system to interface with customers. If appropriate, articulate a return policy and contemplate offering a money-back guarantee.
9. Build Traffic
It’s said that if you build it, they will come. While great content goes a long way, it’s helpful to invest in search engine optimization (SEO) to boost your site’s ranking in search results. You can also promote your site by requesting inbound links, issuing press releases, receiving media coverage and participating in relevant online communities.
10. Don’t Forget Social Media